Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Oscars 2013: Best Documentary Short

Note: This is my personal ranking, listed in order from best to worst, with #1 being my favorite. Prediction for the actual winner is in orange.








I may not get overwhelmed by sentiment in fictional films — in fact, I almost always rage against it — but where you can always sway my heart (of stone) is through the documentaries (see last year’s feature winner, for example). And oh man, do we have some (inherently) manipulative doozies in this category. 

The worst offender is Mondays at Racine. Two hair salon owners dedicate their services to women with cancer one Monday per month, resulting in light and silly sequences of trying on wigs and fanciful hats juxtaposed with hand-gripping, tears-inducing buzz cuts. Previous Oscar winners Cynthia Wade and Robin Hanon (Freeheld, 2007) intersperse salon visits with close-ups of some of the client-patients: the most moving are  the 36-year-old (foster)mother with a heart of gold and the 59-year-old who lived for 17 years (and continues to live) when her doctor said she had less than five, and who maintains an unbelievably positive outlook even when the love of her life fails her. The women are inspiring and it’s impossible not to be moved by the horrors they face (I wept openly multiple times). There’s no doubt voters will be equally moved, but Mondays at Racine only has the cancer card to play (as crude as that sounds), while other nominees boast multiple Academy-baiting layers.

Inocente has a couple things going for it that Oscar loves: an immigrant child and homelessness. Inocente, a Mexican 15-year-old, who has never lived in any one place for more than three months at a time, struggles to stay true to her dream of becoming an artist even as she hides her homelessness from her classmates and fails to be understood by her overburdened mother. Previous Oscar nominees (War/Dance, 2007) Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine’s short is a vibrant, highly personal portrait of a remarkable young girl, but it’s also effortful in its attempt at inspiring weepy: there are detailed descriptions of a suicide attempt and a father’s abusive actions. While Inocente checks a lot of boxes, the Academy doesn’t seem to go for docs that are art-centric (see the excellent Poster Girl and Exit Through the Gift Shop).

First-time nominees Sari Gilman and Jedd Wider’s Kings Point revolves around seniors coping with life, love and death in a retirement home in Florida. Beyond showing us that nothing ever changes — real friends are difficult to make, love is impossible to find when (old) guys are still looking for young(er) ladies — there’s no real hook. While the loose narrative is fitting for its subjects whose largest concern is just passing the time — and those subjects are engaging — it’s doubtful voters will go for a film that depresses them about their own inevitable futures. 

The most original subject matter goes to Redemption (punny title — we love puns!). Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill (Oscar-nominated for their 2009 short, China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province) follow New Yorkers who survive by collecting and returning glass bottles and soda cans — aka “canners.” If you’ve ever seen someone with huge bags of cans and bottles on the street and thought, “well, he don’t look homeless,” it’ll be rather illuminating: the intriguing cast of characters includes a homeless Vietnam vet, an older Jewish lady who simply can’t get by on Social Security alone, and a Chinese woman who lives in a tiny one-bedroom with seven others. Though it makes frequent references to our dire economy, it does so in not-so-subtle ways (a canner walking down WALL ST); it’s simply not enough to move voters’ hearts.

Open Heart is the perfect cocktail of adorable kids fighting disease in an oppressed country. That’s not to sound cynical: first-time nominees Kief Davidson and Cori Shepherd Stern know how to tug our heartstrings simply by letting the subject speak for itself. Eight Rwandan children leave their families to journey to the Salam Center in Sudan, which offers free high-risk heart surgery. All the kids — ranging in age from 6 to 17 — have Rheumatic Heart Disease, chronic heart valve damage that is easily preventable if there’s access to penicillin…which of course there isn’t in their small Rwandan village. What’s exceptional about this film is how well you come to understand both the subject matter and the subjects themselves in only 39 minutes. The kids are lovely: they face surgery and potential life-or-death complications with a strength lacking in most adults, and their heartfelt support of each other is stirring. (The biggest littlest charmer is Angelique, pictured above, who radiates such joy — and a father whose love of and fear for her is painfully palpable.) The doctors — and their plight in keeping the Center’s services free-of-charge — is also inspiring. This is a winner all around (just look to Strangers No More for the winning precedent of captivating kids), and a deserved one. 


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